Tom Surowicz - What Say You?
There have been some fabled recording studios in the Twin
Cities over the years. Herb Pilhofer's state-of- the-art
Sound 80. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis' hit factory, Flyte Tyme.
Prince's personal playground, Paisley Park.
John Fenner's backyard isn't on that list. But it turns out
ya can make a fine record there, too.
It's the coldest night of the year, yet I'm feeling warm and
fuzzy, listening again to this hip summer campfire recording
by my Strange Friends. There's Mr. Fenner, the ringleader,
the man with the backyard barbecue unit that's really just a
hole in the ground with a fire in the middle. Seriously.
Around that hole on a June night, we also find two members
of the beloved, seldom-seen Mubbla Buggs, arguably the most
underrated Twin Cities rock/funk/reggae party band ever.
Check out their CD, Colouramic, for the gloriously
Let's talk for a minute about Eric Hohn and Pat Mavity,
these Buggs who are our Friends. Mr. Hohn also regularly
lays down funky '70s and '80s bass grooves with the Soul
Tight Committee. And he's run sound for 1001 West Bank
Nights, at the best folk, roots and world music venue in the
whole Midwest, the Cedar Cultural Center. Meanwhile Mr.
Mavity, who made his Strange Friends violin-playing debut on
these very tunes (who needs Scarlet Rivera?), has been a
longtime member of the ridiculously eclectic folk-rockin'
combo, Machinery Hill, favorites at the aforementioned Cedar
Then there's the new guy, the young blood, the fresh meat,
drummer Tyler Erickson. Diligently working at his craft, he
also plays punky alt-rock with the band Brown Moses. Which
is older -- Strange Friends, or twenty-something Tyler?
Probably the band, who made their first "official"
recording, Under The Cherry Spoon, back in the mid-1980s. It
was a cassette-only offering. Remember cassettes? They were
small, perfect for the car, and you had to keep them away
from magnets. Now almost two decades years later, this is
Strange Friends' second official release, and hell -- it may
even be worth the wait!
If this impromptu CD has the feel of a party in progress,
that's audio verite, backyard boogie. Chris Frymire, another
trusty Cedar Cultural Center soundman, also of Red House
Records, captured the vibe perfectly. You can just about
smell the whiskey and see the tiki torches. And from time to
time you can variously hear an airplane flying overhead,
Fenner's dog Mickey barking in the background, and some of
the 20-or-so family members and not-so-strange friends who
hung out until 2 a.m. at this most informal of recording
sessions. Amazingly, no Minneapolis cops showed up, even
though Fenner lives but a block away from
Lake Street, within staggering distance of a police station.
And there were no mosquitoes, either -- just Mubbla Buggs,
showing off their faux female back-up vocals on a few
The songs are all proudly Fenner's, except for track #2 --
"Drop This Life" -- by the truly great St. Paul songwriter,
Judd Herrmann. Barflies of the past millenium may also know
him as Judd the Blasphemer, the poet who started out on
ukelele. Herrmann's the veteran of two terrific CD's himself
for Atomic Theory Records, distributed by Rounder, chock
full of slice-of-life songs that can punch ya in the
stomach, make ya laugh out loud or cry. Despite the
disarmingly jaunty Strange Friends arrangement, "Drop This
Life" is one of Herrmann's more brutal ballads, the saga of
dead teen prostitute, a Law & Order, SVU episode given a
The rest of Strange Friends' songs are much easier on the
psyche, though frequently bittersweet. When asked about the
hangdog love letter, "For Sara J. in Mississippi," or the
break-up ballad, "Til The Sun Shines," Fenner is quick to
set this fan straight. "It's all pure fiction. Any
similarities to reality are completely coincidental. There's
no such thing as an important song. They're all just for
"Plus, some of those songs were written a long time ago." Ah
yes, perhaps even before Fenner had become so intertwined
with his stage persona as the cut-up, the consummate grade-A
bullshit artist, the "card", the "character," the "Lickety
Wham" fella waxing on about the virtues of infidelity. On
those last two tracks, a very different but related animal
-- call him the sensitive guy songsmith -- breaks right on
" 'Til the Sun Shines' is actually a parody of the early
Beatles," Fenner maintains. "It's written for a better
singer than me -- Ringo, perhaps, or Jiminy Cricket."
Or perhaps that Nashville Skyline guy, my man Boo Wilbury,
whom I can easily hear "Predicting Good Things" that will
almost certainly never come true. To be alone with Strange
Friends, on a night like this, who needs a better prediction
or prescription than that?
-- Tom Surowicz